Old churches and old cemeteries are nothing new to rural areas in Minnesota. Most every township has its own final resting place and even smaller plots with a handful of graves crop up here and there in the countryside.
But few can match the compelling story of Budejovice church and cemetery a couple of miles west of Montgomery.
Graves in the Budejovice cemetery date back to the 1800s — some so worn with time that the names and dates are barely discernable. Other headstones are much newer with their gleaming granite providing a stark contrast with the older section of burial sites. It doesn’t take long to figure out this sacred ground was a Czech settlement with names on the headstones such as Kotek, Jindra, Staska and Brarec.
The small church on the 3-acre site stands pristine and white; but that wasn’t always the case.
In 2008, Greg Thomas was walking his dog past Budejovice. Thomas had been recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He had lost his job and was losing his life. A devout man, Thomas tried several times to go inside the church but it was always locked.
One day while sitting on the steps of the weather-beaten church with his dog, Thomas decided to walk to the neighboring farm to ask if there was a way he could get inside the church. The neighbor put Thomas in touch with the cemetery’s caretaker.
Thomas offered to paint the church and work on the 1868 structure’s crumbling foundation. The owner of Budejovice, Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Montgomery, gave Thomas its blessing.
For the next three years, when his health permitted, Thomas labored to scrape off layers of old paint and give the church a new white sheen.
Not only was Budejovice church regaining the look of its youth, Thomas’ cancer went into remission. In 2011, he was deemed cancer free.
A Minneapolis television station caught wind of his story. Its 2012 report went viral on the internet.
Thousands of dollars were donated by people throughout the county. A Kansas company suppled free roof tiles and another company supplied labor at cost. The tiny church, which hadn’t held a service in over a century, was getting ready to receive visitors again — or so it seemed.
After Thomas installed electric service and a fireplace in the church, Holy Redeemer told him to stop all work on it. Holy Redeemer trustees thought all of the improvements would require the parish to insure Budejovice and that was something they were unwilling to do.
In 2016, Holy Redeemer changed the locks and once again, Thomas was back to sitting outside.
Oh, and his cancer was back — with a vengeance. Thomas decided to forgo cancer treatment. He died in 2017.
Near the entrance to Budejovice church is a granite marker dedicated to Thomas and his contributions.
This Backroads column originally was published in the March 5-12 edition of The Land, a Free Press Media publication. Budejovice church and its cemetery are along a narrow gravel road in Le Sueur County, at 35430 181st Ave.